The writers' strike is like a forest fire, as NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker described it at the NATPE convention, a disaster from which some good may yet come.
So far, however, the model impressed upon networks by the strike has been a flood of reality programming, some of which has done surprisingly well.
But one recent and unsettling aspect is the apparent depths to which reality shows will go to try to get viewers to tune in to observe the personal failings or embarrassing foibles of regular, everyday folk. We are speaking of course, of Moment of Truth, which is the name of a Fox series that revels in shaming its contestants into confession to all levels of chicanery, dishonesty, and betrayal of family and friends. The secondary message is: What won't the “Great Unwashed” do for money?
Back in the late 1990s, when Fox pledged to wean itself off the heroin of reality specials—on everything from car crashes to chronicling various items embedded in the body—we praised it and looked for better things to come. It did, too. From American Idol to the guilty pleasure of 24 to the brilliantly misanthropic House, Fox stayed edgy but created its own unique groove.
Now comes Fox's Moment of Truth, trotted out to try to keep eyeballs on the network during the strike, and beyond. Moment of Truth appears to be a hit, and gee, why not? The show preys on the voyeurism that fueled Fox's schlocky 1990s specials, with big bucks added to the equation to entice contestants to embarrass or degrade themselves for the entertainment of the masses.
“Do you blame your father for tearing your family apart?” one contestant is asked, winning money only if she tells the truth, which has been previously determined by a lie detector. The same contestant has been coaxed by six-figure sums to concede she resented her sister and had cosmetic surgery. Next week, she'll leave her heartbroken family in ruins, promises a promo. Moment of Truth asked a husband if he's ever touched a co-worker inappropriately, asked a woman if she really thinks she'll be married to her husband in five years, and had a fat woman asking a thinner one if fat people disgust her.
Isn't TV's overcoverage of the Britney Spears tragedy sufficient TV pimping for at least one lifetime?
It wasn't only Fox that reminded us of, well, Fox. NBC recently aired a special on the top 100 entries in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was a show that required more than one Guinness to stomach. Among the “records” being celebrated were the largest object removed from the skull, the heaviest vehicle pulled by meat hooks inserted through the skin, and the most bubbles blown by someone with a live tarantula in their mouth.
If the new TV model means a carnival sideshow appealing to the devils of our worst nature just to feed a Nielsen meter, then after that forest fire that Zucker described, networks will be left not with new growth, just scorched earth.
Fox and others may be trying to reach the YouTube mindset, where the boundaries of taste are vague. But it is slippery and dangerous ground, and it is not a justification for reveling in others' discomfort. Barry Diller, when he was Jerry Springer's boss, stopped the chair-throwing, even if it meant taking a ratings hit. Fox could similarly demand a higher standard.
There's no law against crude television. There's also no reason why television can't climb higher than debasement. Is it really entertainment to ask a Moment of Truth contestant if he sticks something in his crotch to make his bulge seem more prominent?
Moment of Truth isn't just proof of how low reality TV can go, but how low reality itself has sunk.